In anticipation of a Taliban attack, the Afghan army today flew four planeloads of soldiers to Kandahar from the capital, Kabul. Canadian forces have also moved in to the region.
Taliban operations on the outskirts of Kandahar marked the latest display of strength by the militants despite a record number of US and Nato troops in the country.
The Taliban push into Arghandab district - 10 miles north-west of Kandahar - came three days after a coordinated Taliban attack on Kandahar's prison that freed 400 insurgent fighters. The lush region filled with grape and pomegranate groves was never conquered when Soviet forces occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Thousands have fled the area, said Sardar Muhammad, a police officer manning a checkpoint on the east side of the Arghandab river. Police stopped and searched every person passing on the road. On the west side of the river, hundreds of Taliban controlled around nine or 10 villages, Muhammad said.
"Last night the people were afraid, and families on tractors, trucks and taxis fled the area," he told the Associated Press. "Small bridges inside the villages have been destroyed. When we get permission from commanders, we will attack the Taliban."
A Taliban commander named Mullah Ahmedullah said that around 400 Taliban moved into Arghandab from Khakrez, one district to the north. He said some of the militants released in Friday's mass prison break had joined the assault.
"They told us, 'We want to fight until the death,'" Ahmedullah said. "We've occupied most of the area and it's a good place for fighting. Now we are waiting for the Nato and Afghan forces."
The Taliban, driven from power in a 2001 US-led invasion, considered Kandahar as its main stronghold, and have been most active in the south of the country. Recently, the Taliban have avoided pitched battles with Nato forces after taking heavy casualties. Instead they have resorted increasingly to suicide bombings. Three British soldiers died in such an attack last week.
The US and Nato have asked for more troops over the last year and now have some 65,000 in Afghanistan as they seek to subdue a resistance that can count on supply bases in neighbouring Pakistan.
Arghandab lies just north-west of Kandahar city, and a tribal leader from the region warned that the militants could use the cover from Arghandab's orchards to mount an attack on Kandahar itself. Nato officials dismissed such an idea.
One of the Afghans fleeing Arghandab said families were being forced out just as grape groves needed harvesting, meaning financial ruin for thousands. Haji Ibrahim Khan said Taliban fighters were moving through several Arghandab villages with weapons on their shoulders, planting mines and destroying small bridges.
"They told us to leave the area within 24 hours because they want to fight foreign and Afghan troops," Khan said. "But within a week we should be harvesting, and we were expecting a good one. Now with this fighting we are deeply worried the grapes are the only source of income we have."
Britain yesterday announced that it was sending more troops to Afghanistan, to be deployed in southern Afghanistan. The move, which is likely to coincide with a cut in the number of British troops in Iraq, will bring the total British military presence in Afghanistan next spring to more than 8,000 from the current level of 7,800. The troops will step up training of the local security forces and work on development projects.
© 2008 The Guardian